African Storm (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by on Jul 4, 2011 in Blog | Comments Off on African Storm (Part 1 of 2)

African Storm (Part 1 of 2)

Written by Spartan Franco | Tags: ,

Hammamet, Italian Tunisia, November 17th 1870

“Retreat?” Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Colvin raised his bushy eyebrows in astonishment, as the courier in front of him squirmed. “But we only just arrived.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s the order of the day from Brigadier-General Masefield”, the khaki-clad infantryman replied. He opened his satchel and handed Colvin a sheaf of papers. “You’re to make your men ready to vacate the port of Hammamet, together with as many of the remaining civilians as you can convince to leave by fifteen hundred hours tomorrow.”

Colvin took the papers, skimmed them and then scratched his beard with his free hand and gave a great sigh, his bulky form sagging. Around him, his staff and adjutants seemed similarly deflated. They were standing under the portico of the town hall of the port city of Hammamet, which until the previous day had been occupied by Italian troops. Colvin’s regiment, the 19th Staffordshires, had carried the walls in the final, fierce assault that had broken the stubborn Italian resistance. Outside the hall, the city bore the scars of a continuous battering by heavy artillery; the bulk of it had been aimed at its ring of defensive fortifications, but enough ordnance had landed in the city to make a considerable mess of several areas. As Colvin took a closer look at Masefield’s papers, a column of Terrier tanks rumbled across the square outside, dust-cloaked soldiers riding atop each one.

Colvin looked up. “You’ve something else to say, private?”

“Yessir. Brigadier-General Masefield is holding a briefing at eighteen hundred hours. He’ll be expanding on the material in the documents.”

“Thank you, private. Dismissed”, said Colvin. The courier saluted and jogged away.

Colvin turned to his staff. “Well, this is a rum thing, all right. Five days and too much blood to take this patch of beachfront, and it seems the old man wants to evict us even before the League gets the chance. Oh well, let’s get to it.”

“I can see you chaps are all bursting with questions”, said Brigadier-General Rupert Masefield to the commanders of his four regiments and representatives of the Air and Naval Armadas as he began his briefing that evening in the central atrium of a newly-occupied merchant’s villa. “So listen carefully, because now you’re going to get some answers. And believe me when I say they’ll make perfect sense, even without any brandy beforehand.”

Muted laughter rolled around the briefing table. Masefield picked up a long wooden pointer and gestured to a large map of northern Tunisia fixed to the wall. “Our main base is here”, he said, gesturing to New Carthage, the city also known as Tunis, at the northernmost tip of the country. “And the Fourth and Seventh Land Flotillas are here at Gabes to the south. The Italians have stopped their retreat and established a strong line just north of Gabes. They’re using dry lake beds to the west to secure their flank. The line will take some effort to punch through. Hence our lack of Land Ships here.”

“Pardon me, sir, but did you say the Italians are fighting back?” said Captain Ryland of the Navy. “That’s news!”

More low laughter arose, but this time the infantry commanders and artillerymen did not join in. Colvin stared hard at Ryland. “Pardon me, Captain, but with respect, you didn’t have to dig their rearguards out of the cellars here. We lost a lot of good men in a very short time.”

Ryland blanched. “Ah… sorry, sir. Spoke before thinking…”

“Apology accepted”, said Colvin. “But, please watch your words.”

“Quite right, Colvin”, said Masefield. “Now, here’s the crux of the matter. The Italians are tied up with the Ottomans, and we know they have asked the Prussians for assistance. And that, gentlemen, is why we are staging – and please note my use of the word ‘staging’ – this retreat from Hammamet.”

Colvin nodded, following Masefield’s reasoning. “Bait?”

“Exactly, Lieutenant-Colonel. Hammamet itself is bait. The Prussians wish to interdict our supply lines. To do so they need a port. And we shall offer one to them. This one.”

“But sir, how can we be sure that Hammamet will be the target?” asked one of the other infantry commanders. “Why not somewhere further south, like Sousse or Montasir?”

Colvin, now more understanding of Masefield’s plan, answered. “Because Hammamet forms a potential choke-point between here and Gabes. Further south, the land is too flat to blockade effectively without large resources.” He turned to face Masefield. “Which the Prussians don’t have in the Med.”

“Exactly. Well done that man”, said Masefield. “Our purpose here is to stretch the Prussians even further, to weaken them in northern Europe, but if we’re too obvious in our intentions, they won’t bite. Hammamet, we feel, offers the best balance.”

“So the Prussians will land here, hoping to sever our lines of supply to Gabes…” said Colvin.
“And we will bury them under bombs and shellfire”, said Wing-Commander Neil Jackson of the Air Armada with grim satisfaction.

Colvin glanced at the aeronaut, at the hard expression on his aquiline face. He knew that Jackson had lost one of his sons during the Prussian raid on London and its aftermath. He was not a man to be trifled with at the best of times, the infantry commander knew, but now the cold fury was practically radiating off of him.

“That’s the idea”, said Masefield, drawing Colvin’s attention once more. “Now, here’s what must be done. This is Operation Tempest…”

Three days later, during a chilly dawn, Colvin crouched in a temporary bunker on a ridgeline above the city of Hammamet. His entire regiment was deployed around him, carefully concealed in bunkers and foxholes. Their heavy tanks, lozenge-shaped Mark IIs each as big as a large house, were interspersed with them, painstakingly camouflaged until they resembled mere rocky outcroppings. Colvin knew that further back, concealed in the hills and gullies, were several batteries of heavy Cromwell siege mortars of the Queen’s 21st Imperial Bombardiers.

Now, though, the Lieutenant-Colonel’s eyes were fixed upon the town and port below them. Barely seventy-two hours since the Britannians had evacuated, and less than forty-eight since the Prussians had landed, the place was a hive of activity. The Staffordshires had thoroughly sabotaged the harbour as they left, but the enemy engineers had been working overtime – judging by the movement of the cranes around the many transports crowding the quaysides, thePrussians had been putting in considerable overtime. The dawn light was dim, and the town itself was under near blackout conditions – at least as far as possible given the level of work, but the whole area resounded with human and mechanical noise.

Colvin peered through his telescope, trying to pinpoint the nature of the enemy movements. The Prussians had obviously established total control of the port facilities, but as yet were not moving far beyond their lodgement. Out in the misty harbour, whose south facing waters were sheltered by the peninsula on which the town stood, could be seen the low aggressive silhouettes of at least three heavy cruisers, thin streamers of smoke coursing from their funnels. Several smaller vessels – frigates, Colvin surmised – could also be seen slightly further out. Further east, where the waters were deeper, the Britannian officer could see something else: another ship, much bigger and seeming much taller and less graceful, maybe a fleet carrier. He sincerely hoped it wasn’t. His troops had moved only at night and had followed their concealment drills obsessively, but a few sharp-eyed observer pilots could make it all mean nothing.

Shifting his gaze inshore to Hammamet itself, Colvin could see the rings of defences taking shape. Heavy towed artillery cannons were being dragged into positions and dug in. Swarms of infantry were driving new trench-lines around the outer perimeter. Others were shoring up the battered walls and starting to set up anti-aircraft batteries, the multiple barrelled weapons defiantly thrusting upwards like spear-tips. As Colvin watched, half a dozen huge boxy Prussian medium tanks, a mere detachment compared to the numbers massing within the town, rumbled off towards the western edge of the city, the one facing the main road. Every so often, the dim ground around them was harshly illuminated as their devilish electrical guns – the ‘Boche Barbeques’ as his men referred to them – crackled and sparked.

“Got to hand it to the spike hats”, said the thin Air Armada liaison officer, Squadron Leader Ewen Baker-Andrews, kneeling at Colvin’s side. He was peering through an elaborate set of scopes mounted on a brass tripod, his wild straw blond hair framing the device like a halo. “They certainly don’t waste time.”

“Very true”, said Colvin, glancing at the eccentric aeronaut. Baker-Andrews was young for his rank like most of his peers in the air force; at thirty-two he was fifteen years Colvin’s junior. Unlike the brawny grizzled infantry commander, who kept himself regulation uniform and sartorial standards as far as he could, Ewen wore his blue air force kit with an almost careless air. “Look to the east with that contraption, will you? Is that really a carrier out there?”

Baker-Andrews obliged. “Ah, yes. Well spotted sir. That’s a Rhine class all right.”

“Bugger. I’m damned glad they seem to be lacking in air cover. Strange that they should be though, with that sodding great thing sitting there.”

Baker-Andrews looked up and grinned under his bushy blond moustache. “You can thank us and the Jack Tars for that. We’ve been buzzing their supply ships and pickets from here to Sicily. Got them jumping at shadows. They don’t seem able to spare many wings or gasbags down here at the moment. All focussed on the Land Flotillas at Gabes.”

“You’re not worried about the flak?”

“A good pilot is always worried when there’re some impudent wallahs shooting at him, sir. But by the time we step onto the stage, the Boche will have the King Stephen and her friends to worry about.”

Colvin gave a thin smile. The mention of the mighty Majesty class Dreadnought, whose battlegroup would be providing naval gunfire support from Tunis Gulf across the peninsula behind them, gave him new confidence. He knew that the Queen’s Bombardiers observers would be the warships’ eyes and he trusted his fellow soldiers completely – no stray shells would find his men.

“If I were you, sir – and you didn’t have the air force watching over you like the angels we are – I’d be more worried about that big bulk transport barge heading inshore right now.

Colvin raised his telescope again. Sure enough, there it was: a huge square-prowed vessel had hoved into sight, coming around the great mass of the fleet carrier. Though not as large as the flat-top, it dwarfed the cruisers and its own escort ships. “By Jove! An Argosy! But that means…”

“Indeed, sir. They’re bringing in a Land Ship, maybe two, judging by the size of that thing”, said Baker-Andrews matter-of-factly.

“You don’t seem too concerned.”

“Sir, in about a quarter hour, that Land Ship will be sitting on the bottom of Hammamet harbour ready for us to salvage.” The aeronaut looked down at his leather-cased wristwatch, its radium dial glowing faintly. “Ah, sir. It’s almost time.”

Colvin looked at his own watch; ten minutes to six a.m. – ten minutes to zero hour. He turned to his adjutants. “Pass the word – on the signal, we start slinging lead at the buggers on the trench-lines.”

“Right, time for me to whistle up the Donnies and Hawks.” Baker-Andrews crossed over to the wireless transmitter set at the back of the dugout. Taking the voice-horn, he turned a handle vigorously with his free hand, setting the machine humming with power.

Lifting the voice horn to his lips, he spoke in clipped tones. “Nest Egg to Skylark, Nest Egg to Skylark. The bacon is in the pan. I say again, the bacon is in the pan. Over.” Task done, Baker-Andrews replaced the horn and smiled at Colvin. “Now let’s sit back and enjoy the show.”

Colvin glanced again at the approaching spectre of the super-transport and its deadly cargo. If that thing got ashore, they were doomed, even if the other Britannian forces reduced it to scrap. “I hope you’re right, Squadron-Leader, because you’ll be as dead as we footsloggers are if you’re not.”

To be continued.